Dog Behavior Problems: Aggression Between Household Dogs Part 2: Treatment

My dogs are fighting with each other. Is there a treatment for this behavior?

Aggression between household dogs can be challenging to treat. A behavioral assessment should be done by a veterinary behaviorist or qualified behavior consultant. Both dogs need to be evaluated for underlying medical and concurrent behavioral conditions that could contribute to aggressive behavior. Their interactions and communications must be evaluated to determine their underlying motivation.

The behaviorist can use this information to create an appropriate treatment plan and advise you about the prognosis for your specific situation.

"Both dogs need to be evaluated for underlying medical and concurrent behavioral conditions that could contribute to aggressive behavior."

Are there any immediate steps to take?

The first thing to do is assure safety. If your dogs bite each other and are at risk of being injured, it is best to keep them separated until the assessment is done and treatment progresses. Separation can usually be accomplished by a baby gate or holding the dogs on leashes in the same room.

Note: It is essential that your dogs are not staring, barking, or lunging at each other through the barrier, or aggression could intensify over time, making the behavior more difficult to treat. If your dogs lunge as soon as they see each other, it will be better to seclude the dogs in separate rooms behind closed doors.

Sometimes, fighting only occurs in particular situations. If that is the case, you may be able to avoid that situation or keep the dogs on leashes when the triggering stimulus is present. For example, if your dogs only fight when you are preparing food, they can be gated in separate areas during food preparation. A veterinary behaviorist will be able to address this source of conflict, and the need for the barrier may only be temporary.

If you feel confident that your dogs get along well most of the time, they may be allowed to interact outside the problem context. These safe interactions provide opportunities for healthy communication. Always supervise your dogs and be aware of subtle postures that may reflect fear, anxiety, or aggression (see the handout "Canine Communication - Interpreting Dog Language" for more information).

Is there a standard protocol for treating household dogs that are fighting?

There is no standard protocol for treating dogs that fight with each other; household dogs can fight for many different reasons, just as there are many reasons that a dog might cough or limp. Diagnosing the dogs in your household will help determine which behavior tools are needed. Behavioral treatment plans generally focus on improving predictability and communication within relationships. Once triggers for aggression are identified, behavior modification, such as desensitization or response substitution, can be used.

"Behavioral treatment plans generally focus on improving predictability and communication within relationships."

Here are the treatment principles:

  1. Treat underlying medical conditions to ensure the dogs are as healthy and comfortable as possible.
  2. Implement a safety plan based on the triggers for conflict, such as the selective use of barriers. It is essential to identify as many triggers as possible.
  3. Introduce behavior modification and training to reduce the dogs’ reactions to triggers.
  4. Discuss whether psychotropic medication could be helpful.

How can behavior modification reduce fighting?

Behavior modification can change the emotional state of your dog. Relaxation exercises, such as the ‘settle’ and ‘sit stay’ exercises (see the handout "Dog Behavior and Training - Teaching Settle and Calm" for more information), can be applied as part of desensitization to specific triggers. For example, if one dog growls when the other dog approaches, systematic desensitization can gradually help that dog tolerate being approached. That is why it is so important to recognize triggers.

How can training reduce fighting?

Training helpful skills can improve the predictability of interactions, thereby reducing stress. One helpful skill can be ‘go to place’. There are many applications for this skill. For example, if one of your dogs has something valuable and the other dog starts to approach too closely, the approaching dog can be sent to a place to diffuse the situation.

Be sure to use reward-based methods for training so that your dogs are always eager to follow cues. The second benefit of training is that your dogs will more readily focus on you when you give them a cue, as following cues has been associated with treats. Should you notice tension during an interaction, you will be able to use trained verbal cues to guide the dogs to safety, reducing the need to move a dog physically. Sometimes, reaching for a tense dog can trigger an aggressive response, which may be directed toward the other dog or you.

Can medication help?

Medication may be prescribed if one or both dogs exhibit anxiety or frustration that might interfere with learning. Medication can relieve distress and improve the response to behavior modification. Medication may also reduce the intensity of a dog’s reaction to certain triggers.

What is the treatment for fighting over resources?

Different dogs perceive different resources to be valuable. It is essential to immediately prevent fighting by controlling your dogs’ access to valuables. This can be done by removing particular objects (e.g., putting special toys away) or limiting access to specific times (e.g., giving them bones or special toys only when there is a barrier between the dogs). If a resting place like the couch is valuable, the dogs may be gated out of the area.

Some management may need to continue permanently. With the help of a behavior expert, you can begin behavior modification to reduce the intensity of the conflict. For example, you can teach your dogs to play with particular toys only when they are at their assigned place—a mat or an area of a room may be used. Holding a leash or setting up a gate will assure safety until training is well underway. Reward the dogs for remaining in their assigned spots. Over time, the dogs should become conditioned to use their designated areas.

Similarly, you can condition the dogs to use assigned resting places to reduce conflict. Always use a reward-based training method. When dogs are scolded or punished during training, they can become fearful, increasing aggression (see the handout "Why Punishment Should be Avoided" for more information).

Your behaviorist will help you identify potentially valuable resources and can guide you with a very detailed plan. The description provided here is meant to be a general example. Working with a professional who will help you create a safe and effective behavior modification protocol is best.  

What is the treatment for fighting at feeding time?

The first step is to prevent fighting by using management. For example, dogs can be fed in crates or on opposite sides of a gate. Remember, it is important that they do not lunge—if they are lunging from their separate spaces, they should be fed out of sight from each other.

Next, you can teach the dogs to stay in their respective places until they are released to eat. Practice when they are calm so that each dog can sit, stay, and wait patiently for you to reward them with treats. Next, practice with the barrier in place. While preparing dinner, ask your dogs to sit and stay, and frequently reward each dog with some tiny treats. Over time, the dogs will be conditioned to wait patiently, and the barrier may no longer be needed.

"Practice when they are calm so that each dog can sit, stay, and wait patiently for you to reward them with treats."

What is the treatment for redirected aggression?

Redirected aggression is most commonly exhibited in response to someone passing by or entering the house. Your dog could redirect to you if you try to reach for him to move him away while he is aroused. Behavior modification and training can be done to reduce your dog's response to the stimulus. If both of your dogs become excited in response to a stimulus, train one dog at a time to ensure that each dog can proceed at his own pace.

For example, you can teach each dog to move away to a spot away from the door or window with a view. Train when all is calm and use reward-based training. Do not try to punish the dogs for barking as they may become more aroused and more apt to redirect toward each other. When the skill is strong, you can ask a friend to walk by and, with only one dog in the room, you can send your dog to the place, reward him for listening, and then follow up by asking him to ‘sit-stay’ until you are certain that the person is no longer in view. Over time, both dogs will learn to go to separate places for rewards, and the trigger will arouse each dog less. Working with a good trainer who understands learning theory and uses positive reinforcement training methods can be very helpful—with two dogs to work with, the skills must be solid!

Should I try to create a dominance hierarchy?

Most household dogs are fighting for reasons unrelated to dominance. Many household dogs live in harmony without establishing any dominance hierarchy. When a dog is dominant in a relationship, that position is usually attained without fighting. Also, dominance positions can change over time and peacefully. If you are concerned that the aggressive behavior relates to a struggle for dominance, then it would be best to ask your veterinary behaviorist to help you. Trying to help a dog earn dominance can increase conflict if it is not done carefully or if the wrong dog is supported.

Can I leave my dogs together when I am not home?

Many dogs reportedly fight only in the presence of their people. If your dogs only fight in specific contexts that would not occur in your absence, it may be safe to leave them alone together. However, once your dogs have fought, there is always some risk that they will fight in your absence. If your dogs do not usually play or sleep together when you leave the house (you can confirm this by using a spy camera), then it might be best to separate them. If you and your behaviorist feel that the risk of a fight is relatively low, and if you do prefer to leave the dogs together for companionship, then it would be best to set up a video monitor so that you can observe their interactions and possibly send someone to rescue them should they begin to exhibit aggressive behavior.

Should I use a muzzle to prevent injury?

Training your dogs to accept wearing a basket muzzle can be helpful as a muzzle provides a barrier that improves safety (see the handout "Muzzle Training for Dogs" for more information). Your dogs should never be placed in muzzles when there is a considerable risk of a lunge or bite attempt—they should NOT be asked to ‘fight it out’ with a muzzle in place (in fact, they should NOT ever be allowed to fight it out).

"Muzzles can be helpful as treatment progresses and you are preparing to remove a barrier such as a gate or a leash."

Muzzles can be helpful as treatment progresses and you are preparing to remove a barrier such as a gate or a leash. That way, no one will be bitten if you miss a subtle sign of fear or aggression. A basket muzzle can also be used if you are concerned that your dog could pull away from you and lunge during training. Follow the advice of your behavior consultant regarding muzzles, and ensure each dog is comfortable with them. Always supervise your dogs when they are wearing muzzles.

How can I break up a fight?

When dogs fight, they are very aroused and can accidentally bite anyone that pulls them or steps between them. Products such as citronella spray (Spray Shield) and air horns often successfully interrupt dogs. If you are outdoors, you may be able to use a garden hose. If your dogs are small enough, you may be able to toss a heavy blanket over one or both of them. Be very careful as you can be seriously bitten.  

Will it ever be safe for my dogs to mingle?

One treatment goal is to help you predict aggressive responses by understanding the triggers. When triggers are difficult to identify, it is challenging to predict aggressive events, and it may not be safe for your dogs to mingle. If there has already been a serious injury, or if one of your dogs is very large and the other small or frail, the risk of a serious injury may remain high, and the dogs may not be able to mingle safely. Be prepared for the possibility that barriers may be needed long-term.

Will I need to give up one of my dogs?

After a thorough assessment, your veterinary behaviorist may suggest that the risk of serious injury to one of your dogs or a person is very high. Sometimes, aggressive behavior is so intense that even with a barrier in place, the emotional well-being of the dogs is poor. Another consideration is the emotional and physical safety of the people in the home. Children need to be kept safe—a child can be bitten accidentally if dogs start to fight nearby.  

You may be advised to consider whether rehoming one of your dogs could be an option. You do not need to make this decision alone! Your veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist are there to advise you every step of the way.